Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 5. Roger Bacon and the Method of Science

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. The Beginnings of English Philosophy

§ 5. Roger Bacon and the Method of Science

Roger Bacon, the earliest in time of the three named, was also the greatest and the most unfortunate. He lived and wrote under the shadow of an uncongenial system then at the height of its power. He suffered persecution and long imprisonments; his popular fame was that of an alchemist and a wizard; his works were allowed to lie unprinted for centuries; and only later scholars have been able to appreciate his significance. His learning seems to have been unique; he read Aristotle in Greek, and expressed unmeasured contempt for the Latin translations then in vogue; he was acquainted with the writings of the Arab men of science, whose views were far in advance of all other contemporary knowledge. He does not appear himself to have made the original scientific discoveries with which he used to be credited, but he had thoroughly mastered the best of the science and philosophy of his day. There is, of course, much in his writings that may be called scholasticism, but his views on the method of science are markedly modern. His doctrine of method has been compared with that of his more famous namesake Francis Bacon. He was as decided as the latter was in rejecting all authority in matters of science; like him, he took a comprehensive view of knowledge and attempted a classification of the sciences; like him, also, he regarded natural philosophy as the chief of the sciences. The differences between the two are equally remarkable and serve to bring out the merits of the older philosopher. He was a mathematician; and, indeed, he looked upon mathematical proof as the sole type of demonstration. Further, he saw the importance in scientific method of two steps that were inadequately recognised by Francis Bacon—the deductive application of elementary laws to the facts observed, followed by the experimental verification of the results. “Roger Bacon,” it has been said, “has come very near, nearer certainly than any preceding and than any succeeding writer until quite recent times, to a satisfactory theory of scientific method.”